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Community liaison officers: exploring the frontline of corporate practice in the oil and gas sector

Community liaison officers - or CLOs - play a vitally important role in developing and maintaining relationships with communities living close to the sites of company operations. When their role is structured and supported well, CLOs make an essential contribution to a company’s social licence to operate. Yet in regions where regulations and institutions are weak, where there is little awareness of the corporate world, and where needs and expectations are high, these roles can be very challenging – while CLOs often don’t get the full support that they need.

Despite this, there has been little effort to understand CLOs and the challenges they face in any kind of systematic way. There has been no cost-benefit analysis of the CLO role, for instance. The CLO ‘voice’ is missing in the literature on community engagement and the role is often viewed in terms of process, not in human terms. The resilience of individuals and teams is not well understood. And the effects of hiring decisions and team building on the CLO role have not been fully considered.

A recently published paper begins to address these gaps: Community liaison officers:exploring the frontline of corporate practice in the oil and gas sector, by Clare Bebbington (Audire Consultants), Emma Wilson (ECW Energy), Laura Smith and Jamie Van Alstine (Leeds University). The paper aims to shed some light on the role of CLOs and others who play a key role at the interface of communities, government and extractive industry companies. The paper is based on a review of current academic and practitioner literature; a questionnaire survey; and a series of interviews with CLOs and industry managers. The paper offers analysis and a set of recommendations for improving organisational effectiveness, supporting CLO teams and building capacities. It also suggests further areas of work, including research and development of corporate training tools and guidance.

Key challenges identified by CLOs include:

  • Getting yourself heard by your managers;
  • Promoting understanding higher up the hierarchy that social issues and non-technical risks are critically important;
  • Negotiating relations between the company, the community and the local government, especially in relation to land claims; and
  • Managing high community expectations and ‘getting community consultation right’.

The paper highlights two areas that stand out as being particularly crucial for industry practitioners:

  • Getting the recruitment process right; and
  • Ensuring that CLO roles and responsibilities are managed effectively.

Recruiting the ‘right’ CLOs with clear roles and coherent responsibilities is a priority for line managers. But there is a need to better understand and articulate the challenges of structuring teams and improving the way in which CLOs are supported.

Other recommendations include the following:

  • Develop a more coherent approach to manage the CLO role: Job descriptions and training protocols can be standardised, but also need to be tailored to respond to the four key drivers of the CLO role: project, corporate, community and the CLO him/herself.
  • Improve the organisational effectiveness of CLOs and community-facing teams: This includes developing workable, clear and simple management structures and reporting lines. This is particularly important in projects where contractors, project teams and operators may all employ their own CLOs.
  • Enhance cross-organisational communication and understanding: Creating appropriate fora for sharing information and resolving issues is useful, along with giving CLOs tools, techniques and language to allow them to contribute fully in risk assessment and mitigation.
  • Provide CLOs with better training and more opportunities for skills development: There is great potential to develop foundation training curricula, which could then be enhanced with subsequent skills development opportunities for CLOs – and their managers.
  • Incorporate lessons from the field into guidance and best practice: Policies, guidance and standards can become more effective, more relevant to practitioners and more supportive of the needs of those implementing them, if they take into account the reality of CLO roles and the ways in which CLOs are (knowingly or not) adapting international best practice within different contexts.

We also identified several areas of further study including:

  • The structures of community-facing teams which best suit the needs of different community contexts;
  • The risks and opportunities offered by greater CLO empowerment (or disempowerment);
  • How conflicts of interest manifest themselves and are managed;
  • The issue of gender equity in the community engagement process;
  • A cost-benefit analysis of having effective community-facing teams;
  • Understanding when CLOs are most needed and the roles they play at critical times; and
  • The particular challenges faced by CLOs working in conflict areas.

Above all, in any future research it is important that CLOs themselves play a central role, including authoring papers, sharing experiences and training others.

We believe this work will be of interest to all those involved in the development, execution and financing of major projects and operations, particularly in challenging and complex environments. We also hope that it will provide CLOs with access to useful tools and support – and most importantly, a voice in future industry planning.

 

Download the paper here: https://tinyurl.com/communityliaisonofficers

 

For more information contact:

Clare Bebbington: cbebbington@audire.london

Emma Wilson: emma.wilson@ecwenergy.com

Laura Smith: eeles@leeds.ac.uk

James Van Alstine: j.vanalstine@leeds.ac.uk

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